Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Summer Blockbuster

There's something awe-inspiring about the summer blockbuster movie. The term has become part of our culture. A buzzword for the over budget, action packed, usually sequel driven, Hollywood mega movie. The actual genesis of the term stems from the fact that a particular movie has become so popular that movie goers can be seen standing in long lines that literally wrap around the block. Summer 2007 is no different, with a host of extremely hyped-up movies to enjoy. However, I have yet to be won over by any of these.

I think the problem with the movie industry is that they are relying more and more heavily on "hitting it out of the park" with their big budget blockbusters. But the production and marketing costs are getting up into the stratosphere, which ups the risks even further. The sad part of this whole model is that these seemingly mediocre titles continue to do extremely well financially. Just look at how much "Spider-Man 3", "Shrek 3" and "Pirates 3" raked in this past month or so (I've seen both Spider-Man and Pirates and have yet to come out of the theatre with any sort of overwhelming satisfaction). I think it's safe to say these movies have their incredible hype and developed branding to thank.. that, and a couple hundred grand in marketing dollars.

I like to think of it as the American Idol-effect. People will watch or buy what is being talked about. Commericals are talking to them. Giant billboards speak to them. Friends and family talk about how promising these epics will be. The associated, licensed shovel-ware games scream from their Wal-mart boxes at you. Message boards debate about the particular super hero's suit to endless detail. If you really step back and admire it's beauty, the marketing machine can be virtually unstoppable. But when something has this much hype, you're essentially building it up to unachievable heights. Naturally the reviews are going to be bad (and sometimes these are well deserved). The problem is that the hype-machine has already done its job and done it well. No matter how bad a movie is, by week 2 or 3, it's already earned back the production and marketing costs (worldwide or sometimes even domestically) and then some.

This is when those studio executives stop reading the negative reviews and start eying those bags full of money rolling in, and visions of even more sequels begin floating around in their heads. Unfortunately for us, this seems to be an endless cycle, and a vicious one at that. We are the solution to and cause of it all. So if you're wondering why DreamWorks is already planning to make a "Shrek 4" and "Shrek 5", don't blame them, blame yourselves. Or maybe just go out and see "Knocked Up" instead. With a production cost of only $30 million, it's just the opposite of a summer blockbuster.. which means it might actually be good.

Friday, June 01, 2007

How the Wii Could Change Everything

Recently, my family decided they wanted to a get a Nintendo Wii, and so I spent some time looking for ways to find one. So far I have yet to even see a boxed unit in stores. Six months after launch, eBay auctions are still priced higher than retail. This Wii-thing has become a cultural phenomenon, like the DS Lite before it. But what does that mean exactly for the video game industry and your average gaming enthusiast?

Judging by current sales trends, the Wii looks to supplant the Xbox 360 as market leader for this video game generation by 2008 or maybe as early as this Fall. Nintendo consoles are continually at the top of NPD numbers, pointing to a shift in the video game market. Third party publishers like EA and Ubisoft are investing more of their development teams on the Wii. So far, we've seen development of new games fall into two main camps: Next-Gen (PS3, Xbox360, and PC) and New-Gen (Wii, PS2 and PSP). But the rising cost of developing hi-def games is making the risk even greater for game companies who wish to aggressively tackle the Next-Gen.

I think what Nintendo has done successfully is tapped into a market that never significantly existed before, which I'll unfairly refer to as the "non-gamer". Instead of only targeting teenage boys and adult males (which Sony and Microsoft are clearly catering to), Nintendo is focusing on snagging the female gamer and, remarkably, the middle-aged consumer. Games like Wii Sports or Brain Age have a way of drawing in everyone, no matter the age, gender or background. By adding several new groups of users to the mix, Nintendo has really capitalized on broadening the market and helped the industry grow in ways it has never done before.

My only concern is how will the rest of the industry react to this growth? We all know the industry tends to follow suit when a fresh, lucrative idea breaks through (can you say GTA-clone?) but what cues will the publishers take from Nintendo's recent success? So far, many of the highly successful Wii games have been largely minigame-based. Despite their flaws and in some cases cripplingly awful reviews, these games have been selling incredibly well. Perhaps these new consumers do not typically read game magazines or view online game reviews. But to be honest, this type of consumer behavior scares me (amazingly Wii Play is still selling like hotcakes) and I shudder to think what Third-Party publishers will do with even shorter development cycles and more derivative game play.

Not to say that all Wii games aren't for the hardcore gamer. Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess was definitely a solid gaming experience and Metroid Prime 3 and Super Mario Galaxy are on the way. But other than the classic Nintendo series', where are the other games of this caliber? And will this trend trickle onto the other two platforms? As the epic gaming experience becomes more and more costly to make, will developers end up turning to these smaller, more casual, mass-market games? I guess only time will tell.

What I hope will happen is that these new casual gamers will decide they like a certain genre or two and maybe transition into more savvy gaming experiences. Developers might decide to add more accessible game modes to better ease a larger audience into their games. In turn, they could produce improved game interfaces that are more usable and intuitive. Perhaps developers will come to the conclusion that improving graphics should only enhance game experiences, not be the game experience. If these improvements come to fruition, then maybe grandma-gamers aren't so bad after all.